Tattoos carry a weight of universal symbology that tells an instant story about a person. From an evolutionary perspective, they are an intriguing display of tribalism. They illustrate a peculiar dichotomy in our human craving for concurrent individuality and belonging – some get tattoos as a means of distinction, others for a binding sense of social acceptance. Many do it for both. However, below the jejune tales and mantras of life, death, love, passion and heartbreak, at their crux, tattoos are about aligning with an identity.
In an Australian context, beyond the bogan representation of southern crosses, tribal/warrior insignia and tramp stamps, we are witnessing a meteoric surge in young, middle-class 20-somethings getting tattoos. Tattoos have now become one of the predominant outlets for self-expression in young people. It’s a strange feeling in many circumstances where choosing to be unadorned makes you the minority, in an endless sea of ink pressing for individuality and attention. The lure of a stamp of distinction has resulted in them being anything but; their snowballing mass adoption has left many with little foresight for their permanency, or regard for its precipitation of deeper problems.
This story telling device is often misguided in its intentions. Beyond the surface level qualms of derivative artwork, inane symbolism, needless pain and the expense of it all, there are three latent reasons that underline why tattoos mask a deeper emotional void:
1. Permanency avoiding change
Tattoos are permanent – no points for guessing that one. Life however is not congruous to this ideal. No statement, visual or verbal – no matter how life affirming, nuanced, or intensely personal, can be assuredly relevant to someone throughout the entire course of their life. Those that think otherwise are guilty of self-preservation – blindly reassuring themselves that personal and life changes are both controllable and unwanted.
Clinging desperately onto the skin, tattoos are fearful of change. Beside the obvious permanent disfigurement of your body, they conspicuously illustrate an ignorant belief that the bearer’s life is absolute. People’s taste in music, food, fashion, sexual partners, careers, etcetera all fluctuate with great ease. The person you love might leave you for someone else. Someone very close to you may soon pass away. So why mark yourself indelibly when life is a game of flux?
People with tattoos relish telling the story behind them. It’s a point of pride should someone be fascinated by their story and their supposed ideology. More so, it exists as a means to nurture a person’s self-importance.
It’s no wonder that most tattoos aren’t hidden. They are emblazoned in plain sight for the world to see – begging for their story to be unveiled. However, the mythic constructs surrounding a tattoo assert a far more problematic story than that of which it portrays. Whether a tattoo induces pathos or admiration, both act to fuel the wearer’s sense of import and pride.
Both extremities of low and high self-esteem are clear-cut reasons for this. Those with excessively high self-esteem constantly need this praise and respect to propel their ego. On the contrary, those with low self-esteem desperately feel the need to affirm an identity to muffle their crippling feelings of insecurity and insignificance.
In the burgeoning age of ‘i’ – that is, social media – self-publicising is standard. This palpable narcissism is a toxic grip of self-obsession and attention seeking. The explosion of tattoos in younger people in these circumstances is a given, in an age where publicity seemingly matters so much.
Tattoos are borne of insecurity and a gap in self-identity. This is a deep-seated inability to feel comfortable with one’s individuality, and the resultant craving to assert a sense of selfhood. Someone who is satisfied and comfortable with their identity shouldn’t feel the need to engrave a token of their life onto themselves for all eyes to see. Why do we need this reminder of who we are? And what are we trying to reassure ourselves of?
As with the reluctance to accept change, there is also a reluctance to accept true self-identity. It’s far easier to project a mirage of someone interesting than to actually be interesting yourself. The sad reality is that tattoos are less about who someone is, but more so a construction of a person they desperately want to become.
The permanency of this Freudian slip will ripple throughout the bearer’s life. The deeper motives of tattoos are indeed a cry for help, begging to fill an emotional void. Not getting a tattoo is an active choice nonetheless. It’s a choice that asserts acceptance of personal change, the importance of humility, and furthermore that individuality speaks for itself.